“I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact” – Frederick Douglas
In his autobiographical narrative, this sentiment is noted by Douglas as the, “turning point in my career as a slave”, an immensely powerful statement on his ideas of autonomy and self-determination. By fighting and actively resisting Covey’s attempts to suppress him, Douglas “rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within [him] a sense of [his] own manhood”. Interestingly, this stalwart rejection of the institutionalized racism did not fully carry over into his political philosophy.
There has been a long-standing debate since the Reconstruction era-between the camps of Du Bois and Douglas on how to best uplift people of African descent in American society. Despite his first-hand experience with the horrors of slavery, Douglas favored an approach of quiet, intellectual integration with mainstream (read: White) society. Du Bois saw this as an erasure of the historical wrongs perpetrated against black people, and instead proposed a preservation of the African diaspora and creating a parallel culture for African Americans. The difference lies in the fact that both men were products of their times.
Douglas lived as a slave for around twenty years of his life. One would think that this direct contact with slavery would lead him to be all the more bitter about the repression of African Americans, yet he did not seem to want to “rock the boat”, so to speak, as much as Du Bois. I believe this attitude is the result of his realism about the context of his time, and the lack of a transparent black culture in America. Much of what slave-owners did to control blacks was separate and crack down on slaves who were too “friendly” with each other, the fear being that they might start to be “discontent” with their condition as slaves. Therefore in Douglas’ time, there was no real concept of a unified black culture in America, beyond the context of being slaves. Du Bois is simply a continuation of philosophy in a different time, and comparing the two side-by-side did more harm than good in the black community at the turn of the century.
The quote clearly reflects that Douglas was not as passive as some interpretations of his outlook have painted him. In rejecting the concept of slavery on a personal level, Douglas had achieved a personal revolution which could not be quelled by any amount of beating or humiliation.